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The Practical Side of Empathy – A Critical PM Success Factor

According to a recent survey, “Ninety-one percent of CEOs believe empathy is directly linked to a company’s financial performance, while 93 percent of employees say they’re more likely to stay with an empathetic employer.”  

Empathy is the quality of being aware of, understanding and/or experiencing the emotional feelings and thoughts of another without direct and explicit communication.  In the context of project management and management in general, the power of empathy enables a person to be of greater service to sponsors, clients, peers, superiors and subordinates.  Since, in the end, project management is about serving the needs of stakeholders and satisfying their expectations, empathy is a critical success factor. 
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou  

A Case in Point

Empathy and its absence impact performance.   The impact may be subtle and long lasting, as in a situation where there is a positive sense of trust and respect resulting in dedication of people to contribute.  The impact may be more immediate as in the manner you as a manager fire an employee.
As a case in point, there was a project to restructure an organization of several thousand people with budgets in the billions of U. S. dollars.  After an initial announcement that there would be a realignment and reorganization.  The leadership went into planning mode while making tactical changes in the operations and both keeping operations going and improving them.   For more than nine months there was minimal communication regarding the reorganization. 
Even those who were better able to live with uncertainty were effected by the absence of communication.  Many lost respect for the leadership and its ability to manage change.  Those who had lower tolerance for uncertainty worried and were stressed.  There was distrust and anxiety.  There was a belief that the leadership was indifferent to people’s feelings and wellbeing.  Among some, there was a sense of bewilderment regarding leadership’s lack of following basic change management principles.
The change leadership was well meaning.  They had a difficult task, coupled with pressure from their leadership to keep the lights on and improve operations even before the restructuring took place.  They were aware of the need to go slow to make sure they got the restructuring right.
The change leaders expected everyone to keep doing what needed to be done, as directed, and wait patiently for the completion of the organizational planning and announcement of who would be reporting to whom and with what responsibilities. 


One might ask, “What does this have to do with empathy?”
The answer is that many of the people effected by the change felt that leadership was not empathetic.  The thinking was that had the change leadership put themselves in the place of the people being effected by the change, to understand their feelings and reactions, the leaders might have spent more time and effort in communicating to dispel unnecessary uncertainty, be seen as trusted change leaders and to exhibit a degree of caring and kindness.  

Types of Empathy

Experts tell us that there are three kinds of empathy, cognitive, emotional and compassionate. 

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy is the ability to intellectually understand what others may think or feel.  It is taking the perspective of another.  This is very useful in negotiating, conflict resolution and in motivating people.  But, this kind of empathy can be cold and calculating.  When there is no emotional connection, there is a tendency to be detached, uncaring and manipulative. 

Emotional Empathy

Emotional empathy is feeling what others are feeling, as if their emotions were contagious.  “This emotional contagion depends in large part on cells in the brain called mirror neurons, which fire when we sense another’s emotional state, creating an echo of that state inside our own minds. Emotional empathy attunes us to another person’s inner emotional world, a plus for a wide range of professions …”   
Emotional empathy has a negative side.  One’s emotions, triggered by another’s, can become overwhelming and lead to reactions and decisions that may not be in the best interest of the people or project at hand.  The project manager must be able to manage his or her emotions, and while feeling them fully, not become reactive.  For example, if one found it necessary to let someone go, one would feel the others pain but still go through with the action to let them go.  Compassionate empathy informs the choice of an approach that would minimize the other’s pain. 

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Compassionate Empathy

The third kind of empathy is compassionate empathy.  Compassionate empathy blends emotions with rational thinking and the urge to help.  One feels another’s feelings as if they were one’s own and applies emotional intelligence so as not to be driven by the feelings.  At the same time, one is moved to help, if possible and necessary.   
Compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it” according to Merriam Webster.  Other perspectives point to the need to apply self-compassion as well as compassion for others.
Compassionate Empathy is the highest form of empathy.  It moves empathy from receptivity to proactive action motivated by a felt sense of kindness, caring and the urge to serve.  

The PM Connection

Empathy, compassion, kindness, and caring – they all seem so touchy-feely.   Are project managers supposed to be kind and empathetic? Only if they want to be successful and happy.
Studies and common sense tell us that workers are more productive and have lower turnover rates when they are less stressed with a sense that the people they work for and with care about them as people. 

Making Compassionate Empathy Practical and Real

In the past, many readers would have opted out as soon as the words empathy and compassion were encountered.  There was a tendency towards over analysis and separating feelings from “practical” business issues.  Today, it is widely accepted that acknowledging and managing feelings is quite practical.  If people are part of the equation, there will be feelings and their feelings will affect performance.
If feelings are positive (happiness, kindness, compassion, confidence, confidence, trust, etc.)  it is likely that people will perform more effectively.    If the feelings are negative (anger, depression, anxiety, jealousy, distrust, etc.) performance will suffer. 

Cultivating Empathy

Cultivating empathy begins with motivation and the cultivation of mindful awareness as a foundation for emotional and social intelligence. 
One becomes receptive and in touch with the subtle effects of the mirror neurons – our innate capacity to feel what others are feeling.  At the same time, we use cognitive and communication skills to show people that they are seen and being cared about. 
How do you feel at work?  How do your stakeholders feel?  Do positive feelings and empathy make a difference?  The studies and theories are helpful in answering these questions, but you need to answer them for yourself, based on your own experience and the experience of those around you. 
Think about it, talk about it.  See if empathy matters.  And if it does, do something to make yourself and your organization more compassionately empathetic.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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